The Symposium was hosted by the Dutch Restitution Committee, known as The Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Applications for Items of Cultural Value and the Second World War. Many European countries, not only the Netherlands, rely on advice issued by national commissions tasked with processing claims and recommending to the cultural ministries whether particular contested property should be returned to the claimants or retained by the museums as good title owners. In his role as the Special Envoy, Davidson is “responsible for developing and implementing U.S. policy pertaining to the return of Holocaust-era assets to their rightful owners, compensation for wrongs committed during the Holocaust, and Holocaust remembrance.”
What did prompt the United States to consider having an ADR forum for resolving World War II art claims in the first place? In 2009, galvanized by the Prague conference and in response to the growing number of Nazi era art-related claims brought in the United States (Museum of Fine Arts v. Serger-Thomschits, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58826 (D. Mass. Filed Jan. 22 2008); Detroit Inst. Of Arts v. Ullin, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28364 (E.D. Mich. March 31, 2007); Toledo Museum of Art v. Ullin, 477 F. Supp. 2d 208 (N.D. Ohio 2006)), domestic attorneys, politicians and academics began in earnest discussing the dispute resolution models adopted in Europe in hopes of finding an alternative forum to resolve domestic Holocaust-era related disputes.
In the fall of 2009, U.S. Department of State hosted a series of town hall meetings in Washington, DC to discuss the viability of creating an advisory commission in the United States. In November of 2009, Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, then the United States Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, circulated the first draft of a proposal for forming such a panel. He solicited and received comments from the trial attorneys, academics and museum counsel. The comments were mixed, for example, during the second annual Art Litigation and Dispute Resolution Institute, held in New York on November 20, 2009, a group of panelists debated the merits of the proposal. The panelists included Ambassador Kennedy, Charles A. Goldstein, of counsel for Herrick Feinstein and Director of the Commission for Art Recovery, Prof. Jennifer Kreder, NKU Salmon B. Chase College of Law, and Prof. Edward Gaffney, Valparaiso Law School. Goldstein argued that the European models, such as the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel and the Dutch Commission are not adoptable to the American legal landscape, because most European museums are almost exclusively government-owned, their the restitution or compensation decisions require government action, where is in the United States, most museums are private non-profit organizations and a federal or state decision to deaccessioning something would be unconstitutional as seizure of property. Kreder and Gaffney were more optimistic about benefits of a U.S. Advisory Panel.
There was little talk about the Panel/Commission since 2009. Three years later, Davidson was asked to comment on the U.S. progress in creating an advisory entity “to deal with ownership disputes over Nazi-confiscated art in the United States.” Polite and circumspect (“Like many things that involve the large and disparate and in many ways unique country I come from, this is not so simple a subject. I doubt I can do this topic justice in the brief time allotted to me today, either”), Davidson tried to paint a picture of the “current thinking within the United States Government in regard to this controversial topic.”
He admitted that in 2009 there was a basic agreement that a U.S. Commission would provide an ADR forum to allow claims for lesser value objects be brought against the current possessors without claimants incurring high litigation costs. “We have not yet, however, come up with a model of a commission – what qualifications commissioners should have, how they would be appointed, where in the federal government structure the commission would fit, what its exact responsibilities would be, how it would be funded.”
Davidson came short of admitting that the idea of forming a U.S. Commission was rejected permanently. He listed many impediments both financial and institutional that all but make a U.S. Commission impossible to create and operate. He identified the following impediments:
- the unique nature of the American system of government, aka the “Federal Government,” without a Ministry of Culture. “Given our history, traditions, and inclinations, it also strikes me as highly unlikely that we will create such a cabinet department any time soon.”
- privately owned museums; “As the website of the American Alliance of Museums laments, “Only a small (and shrinking) percentage of America’s 17,500+ museums receive federal funding of any kind.” Whereby European museums are government owned and sponsored, they are more likely to follow orders from their proper governments. There is less direct control over the American museums.
- location of the displaced art, “the amount of art displaced between 1933 and 1945 and still in Europe is also considerably larger than the amount of displaced art now in the United States.
- inability to locate the commission in the United States Department of State (despite the fact that there is a Cultural Property Advisory Committee under the Department of State already).
In his presentation, Davidson was frequently and at length quoting Ambassadors Kenned and Stuart E. Eizenstat. For example: